Addicted to Hydrangea

In the small coastal village of Varengeville-sur-Mer, in Normandy France, I had the pleasure of meeting the worlds foremost Hydrangea experts Robert and Corinne Mallet. Inside their small cottage, stacks of books, piles of herbarium specimens and a mass of photography towered about me and surrounded me. Everything within site, including the Mallets themselves, revolved around the genus Hydrangea. Call them advocates, fanatics or just plant crazy; they’ve devoted their lives to growing, studying and promoting Hydrangeas.
While I have other pursuits in my life, you might also call me a bit of a Hydrangea nut. After all - it was I who had traveled all the way to France to learn from the masters. Yes, Hydrangeas are a unique group of plants that can cast an inexplicable spell on those who grow them. To know the charm, beauty and usefulness of Hydrangeas is bound to create an enthusiast to some degree.
There are some 23 different species of Hydrangea. A few are evergreen, but most are deciduous forms of vines, shrubs or small trees. Where I live in Michigan, I can successfully cultivate about 10 different Hydrangea species. What is amazing is that only half of these species are readily available in the nursery trade and only five species of Hydrangea provide us with the hundreds of unique plants (cultivars) in which to beautify our gardens. While an unmentioned East Coast author (Martha Stewart) would espouse the beauty and bold brash colors of Hydrangea macrophylla (The Bigleaf Hydrangea), I would rather extol the virtues of some less glorious, but more reliable species. These Hydrangeas have proven themselves to be great garden plants for our harsh continental climate.

Climbing Hydrangea, Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris (Eastern Asia, Zone 4 ) is a beautiful vine that climbs by aerial rootlets. It has glossy, heart heart-shaped leaves and white lacy blooms (corymbs) in early summer. It can be grown as a shrub, groundcover, or as a vine depending upon its culture. You have not lived until you have seen this plant in full bloom climbing up a tall oak tree. It is very happy on a north facing building or otherwise shady brick wall. I know of only a few cultivars, but most of them are hard to find in the market. 'Skylands Giant' is a selection with very large blooms. 'Tilifolia' is a selection with very small leaves, and Fire Fly’ is good variegated selection with bold yellow and green leaves. All of these plants are worth hunting for and growing.

The Smooth Hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens (Eastern U.S, Zone 3), is a wonderful, hardy plant that blooms in midsummer. It has the great advantage of blooming on the current seasons wood. This results in very reliable blooming regardless of frost or winter injury. The species is not a spectacular garden plant with its small mostly fertile flowers, but there are some noteworthy cultivars that are worth growing.
'Annabelle', introduce by Joe McDanials of Champaign, IL, is the most commonly grown cultivar. One is hard pressed to find any other cultivar of Hydrangea arborescens being sold today. There are some nurseries unknowingly selling the cultivars 'Grandiflora' as 'Annabelle'. True 'Annabelle' has very large, perfectly symmetrical blooms, while the blooms of 'Grandiflora' are often quartered and irregular. 'Annabelle' is very showy, but often collapses under the weight of its own blooms.
There is a need for more selections of H. arborescens. I would like to see an improved 'Annabelle' with sturdier stems. I also feel there is room for more lace-cap selections, especially selections made from plants like H. arborescens subsp. discolor which has light downy hair beneath the leaves and H. arborescens subsp. radiata which has snow white coloration on the underside of the leaves. I personally find these plants more graceful and delicate than 'Annabelle'.
There are three new introductions of H. arborescens on the market and both are very exciting. . Dutch horticulturist Wouter Kromhout brings us an exciting new lace-cap called White Dome This strong growing plant has extremely large dome-shaped blooms and large, attractive dark green leaves on a 5-6’ tall plant. This plant is exceptionally fine in the winter for its dried flowerheads look magical with a touch of frost or snow on them. (See image above). It can be mass planted to acheive the same winter interest you get with ornamental grasses like Miscantuhus.
Incrediball is a new and improved form of Annabelle with massive flowers and strong stems that hold up the blooms. This plant is larger in stature than Annabelle, reaching 4-4.5 feet tall.
Invincibelle 'Spirit' is the most exciting hydrangea introduction in years. It is the first pink flowerd form of 'Annabelle'. It was developed by Dr. Tom Ranney of NC State. Now we have the color of a Hydrangea macrophylla but with the dependability of H. arborescens. Very exciting!

Hydrangea arborescens is a very useful and adaptable plant. It grows in light shade or full sun, and once established it can be quite drought tolerant. Be careful not to over fertilize this plant or it will grow weak and leggy. I prefer to cut it back hard each spring to create a fuller bushier plant and to remove any winter damaged stems. In the landscape use it as a focal point for its white flowers can stand out from long distances. It also looks great in mass plantings.

The Panicle Hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata (Asia, Zone 3) is a wonderful, hardy species that also blooms on new wood. It flowers in late summer to early fall. The cultivar Pee Gee or 'Grandiflora' is an old, commonly grown cultivar that deserves retirement. It has large floppy white panicles. Superior cultivars are now making their way to market. Most of these plants were developed by Robert and Jelena DeBelder of Belgium. 'Little lamb' is a DeBelder introduction with a dwarf compact habit. The flower heads are petit but full. They emerge a pure white and change to a rich pink in autumn. Pieter Zwijnenburg of Holland developed ‘Limelight’ a plant that is making quite the splash in the US. This incredible plant is noteworthy for several reasons. It sports attractive bright green flowers on strong upright stems. It blooms in early July, which is quite early for the species. ‘Limelight’ is at its best in autumn when the green flowers transform to breathtaking shades of green, pink and burgundy all on the same plant. I have seen numerous other selections of Hydrangea paniculata that are yet unnamed or introduced. We are currently evaluating a few selections but want to make certain that they are distinct and worthy before introduction. Also of note, the USDA has been attempting to cross H. paniculata and H. macrophylla in order to create a hardy, reliably blooming plant with interesting colors. Time will tell if this effort is successful.
Hydrangea paniculata is very easy to grow and adaptable to most garden soils so long as is it not planted in standing water. This plant makes a great blooming hedge if you don’t over prune it. Just let it grow and enjoy the color.
Hydrangea quercifolia (South Eastern U.S, Zone 5) know as the Oakleaf Hydrangea is a wonderful plant with distinct oak-like leaves. It has beautiful white panicles in midsummer that often fade to pink as they age. It is also noted for its blood red fall foliage color. The cultivar 'Snow Queen' is perhaps the standard by which all oakleaf cultivars are judged. It has large, upright panicles with large sepals and deep red fall color. 'Snowflake' is a beautiful, double flowered selection with large, pendulous panicles. The sepals age to purple even as new white sepals emerge to create a beautiful contrast. 'Harmony' has curious globular blooms. It is strictly a plant for collectors. Mike Dirr introduced a selection called 'Alice'. She has large panicles, good red fall color and extremely vigorous growth. Here too, we are evaluating other new selections that may warrant introduction.
Oakleaf Hydrangea is very reliable, easy to grow and thrives on neglect. It is extremely drought and heat tolerant. It will thrive in full sun or partial shade. It will flower in heavy shade but it will grow at a much slower rate. Use this plant in large mass plantings in commercial settings or as a specimen in a home landscape. Grow in contrast with plants with fine textures and narrow leaves. Please note that the wood on this plant is quite brittle, so it should not be planted where ice or snow could smash its structure.
As you can see, the genus Hydrangea is wonderfully diverse. But don't just take my word for it - the best way to know these plants is to grow them. But be careful, it’s fun and potentially addicting.

If you wish to learn more about Hydrangea I highly recommend the following books; Hydrangeas, Species & Cultivars a two volume set by Corinne Mallet, Hydrangeas, A Gardeners Guide, by Toni Lawson-Hall and Brian Rothera, and The Hydrangea by Michael Haworth-Booth. I also recommend joining the American Hydrangea Society, or if you're in Europe, the Shamrock Society.

Changing the Way We Garden

Changing the Way We Garden
Every once in a while, a new plant comes along and changes the way we garden. Case in point, Weigela florida (pronounced: Why-gel-ah). New introductions are forcing landscapers and gardeners to reassess its value and its how its used.

Long considered an overly large, old fashioned shrub of one dimension, newly introduced cultivars have extended its season of color and opened up new landscape applications.

The first major shift came about eight years ago when Herman Geers developed and introduced Wine & Roses Weigela, Weigela florida ‘Alexandra’ pp#10,772. Wine & Roses Weigela, with its dark burgundy foliage, proved that Weigela had ornamental value beyond its two to three week spring bloom time. While Geers developed the plant as an ornamental cut branch for the European cut flower market, it also made a big impact on the North American garden. It sparked a resurgence in the popularity or Weigela, as people began to use it in ways never considered before. Most radically, perennial gardeners began to realize that this plant was right at home in the perennial garden; a perfect complement to Rudbeckia, Perovskia, Echinops and a host of other pink, blue or silver herbaceous plants. Additionally, it found advocates that used the plant in mixed decorative containers and yes, of course, in the cut flower garden. No one ever dreamed of using Weigela ‘Red Prince’ or any of the older cultivars in such untraditional ways.
The next paradigm shift came about six years ago with the introduction of Midnight Wine Weigela, Weigela florida ‘Elvera’ pp#12,217, another Herman Geers development with dark burgundy leaves. At a mature size of 12 to 18 inches, as opposed to the typical 5 to 8' height of the species, this Weigela opened up even more garden applications. Before this plant, no one their right mind would have considered using Weigela as a bedding plant, edging plant or as a ground cover, but that is what’s happening today. In the spring of 2006, My Monet Weigela, Weigela florida ‘Verweig’ pp#16,824, joins Midnight Wine in this new class of miniature cultivars. This much anticipated gem sports brightly colored, tricolor leaves of cream, green and pink. Each of these minis can be used in place of such as coleus, silver mound Artemisia, creeping phlox, candy tuft and so on. You get the idea. A shrub that was recently seen only as a farmhouse relic is now perfectly at home in an annual display, perennial bed, a decorative patio container or for that matter a window box.

Plants like this change everything, and they keep gardening fun. As a plant hunter, I am always thinking about new directions in plant breeding and how they will change the way we garden. I am always on the hunt for plants that make gardening more rewarding or solve a problem. As residential lots get smaller and smaller, and as time becomes more precious, people will have less room in their garden for large, short season shrubs that require a lot of care.

New plants, particularly new flowering shrubs, are changing the way we garden.

Add the Plant Hunter to your website

It's easy to add The Plant Hunter to your website. It's an easy way to provide your audience with intersting free content.

You can also get your Plant Hunter posts via email.

Click here to learn more

Food, Drink and Plant Hunting

For most Americans the thought of eating puffer fish or raw sea urchin is unthinkable, if not down right disgusting. I can honestly say from experience that dried cuttlefish is impossible to chew and that fried tripe is nearly impossible to keep down. But meals, especially meals in foreign lands and cultures are so much more than just a way to fill the tank. Meals are about people, cultures, friendships, relationships, communication and building trust. Food is one of the most enjoyable, and at times the most challenging, aspects of being a plant hunter. Food and drink is an intrinsic part of plant hunting.

It should come as no surprise that the ministry of Jesus was so closely associated with food and drink. He changed water into wine, fed thousands with a few fish and loaves, and dined with his closest friends in the upper room. But have your ever thought about what message it would have sent if Peter or one of the other disciples refused to eat the food Jesus offered? What if Andrew had complained about the wine at last supper? Refusing to share or even appreciate the gift of a meal is a slap in the face of your host, even if it’s barbequed sea eel and potato wine.

No matter where I’ve traveled, I have always eaten what my host has offered and I was always appreciative. In Mexico, I discovered that my host spent a week away from his family doing odd jobs just so he could buy the meat for our meal. While in Japan, a group of local nurserymen dug deep in their pockets to take us to one of the best and most expensive restaurants in Tokyo. In Korea, grower after grower bought the same expensive meal despite that fact that the price could have feed their families for a week. What message would I have sent to these people if I had refused their gift of a meal?

One of my most memorable meals was with a small grower along the Northern coast of France. I had often heard that the French people are rude, but I have found the complete opposite to be true. This particular nurseryman was so thrilled that we had travel so far and had taken time to visit his humble nursery. He insisted on popping open a bottle of Champagne. We had not known each other 30 minutes earlier, but there we sat, is his home talking about plants, the nursery business and life as we shared the bottle and food. I do not normally drink so early in the day but who am I to refuse this mans gift?

Over the course of that meal we learned that his home had been occupied by Germans for four years during WWII. He parents had been taken off to concentration camps, while he and his brother were forced to run the farm and feed the German soldiers.

But on this day he was feeding Americans, and for him that was reason to celebrate. Soon after D-day this man’s home was liberated by American troops. In the the four months that followed, he and his brother joyfully shared their home and meals with these young American boys. And now, nearly 60 year later we sat in the same home and shared food and drink. Together we ate, drank and laughed and yes even cried as he told us that his father and Mother never returned from the camps. All of this - over a few hours and a meal.

Perhaps now you can see why I never complain about the food when I travel. Meals are not so much about the food, but rather about the people whom you share them with. Food is about friendships, relationships and sharing. It is also one of the most joyous aspects of being human.

Subscribe to The Plant Hunter by Email

Pinky Winky - Hydrangea paniculata

Hydrangea paniculata ‘DVPpinky’ pp# 16,166

Late this summer we hosted two different groups that toured our nursery. One group was in conjunction with the Northern Plant Conference, and the other was the Eastern Region of the International Plant Propagators Society. In total we had over 400 keen plants people touring our display garden and based on the comments I heard the plant that sparked the most interest was Pinky Winky™ Hydrangea.

Pinky Winky is the creation of Dr. Johan Van Huylenbroeek, a well know ornamental plant breeder within the Department of Plant Genetics and Breeding at Flemish Institute for Agriculture. He developed this new variety by treating seedlings of Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pink Diamond’ with the chemical mutagen colchicine. In amongst the resulting seedlings emerged a superb new Hydrangea that had just recently come to market in North America.

What makes Pinky Winky so special and unique is its white and pink two-toned flower heads that appear in mid-summer. The large, 16 inch long flower heads (panicles) emerge white and the flowers at the base of the panicle quickly turn pink. The flowering is indeterminate, meaning they continue to push new white flowers from the tip of the panicle while the older flowers transform to rich pink. As an added bonus the flower heads are held upright on strong stems and don’t droop like the ever popular Pee Gee variety. The plant also exhibits dark green foliage which makes for a nice backdrop for its beautiful flowers. Like all paniculata hydrangeas Pinky Winky blooms regardless of climate, soil, pH or pruning. Use it as a specimen plant or to create a spectacular flowering hedge.

I know, I know - Pinky Winky is a strange name for such a beautiful plant but it’s a name you can’t forget. I ask Johan about the name and he told me it was derived from a character on a children’s television program called Teletubbies!

Despite the name, Pinky Winky Hydrangea will find a wide following with adults. It is distinct, beautiful and easy to grow.

“Do we really need another Hydrangea?” is the question that I often here from growers. The same is said of daylilies, Hosta, and roses. My answer is a resounding yes for all. There is always room for a better plant. Knock Out rose and Stella de Oro both prove my case. As far as Hydrangea go, Pinky Winky is distinct and superior to Pink Diamond, Tardiva, Ruby, Burgundy Lace or any other variety grown for large pink panicles. In my opinion Pinky Winky, Limelight, Little Lamb and Quick Fire are the best of their class and each is unique and deserves greater use in out landscapes and gardens. There are dozens of Hydrangea paniculata cultivars that deserve the label of heirloom because there is no good reason to grow or sell them unless you’re a collector. This list of obsolete varieties includes ‘Grandiflora’ aka Pee Gee, Tardiva, Kyushu, Burgundy Lace, Brussels Lace, Chantilly Lace, Praecox, Floribunda, Pee Wee, Dharuma, Unique and Pink Diamond. While many of these plants are very good, there are no longer the best.

It is my hope that I live long enough to see the day when growers stop offering Pee Gee. The plant gives the species a bad name, and that’s a real shame! It’s a shame because few plants offer as much a Hydrangea paniculata. It’s long blooming, reliable, showy, and easy to grow, makes a great cut flower both fresh and dry, is adaptable to difficult soils, and grows from Fargo to Fayetteville without missing a beat.

The time is right for Pinky Winky.

Heptacodium - A plant with a bright future!

Heptacodium miconioides, (seven-son flower) is a little known member of the honeysuckle family that is certain to become a household name. Although its name may be slightly unattractive, it has all the ornamental features necessary to be a prized, useful and well accepted landscape plant. Besides being rare, what makes this large shrub or small tree so desirable is that it shines at a time of the year when most other plants are at their worst. Seven-son flower blooms in the late summer - early autumn. Its 10-15 foot arching frame is covered with creamy white, fragrant flowers to create a unique and memorable show. And just when you think that this plant has reached its pinnacle of ornamentation, the flowers fade and are replaced by stunning cherry red, flower-like sepals. It's as if the darn thing is blooming again, but in a different color! This unique floral display provides effective and welcome garden color from late August to until mid-November. Although Heptacodium has little to offer in fall foliage color, it does have attractive brown exfoliating bark that provides appreciated winter interest.

Native to the Zhejiang Province of China, Heptacodium was first introduced to the west by the famous plant explorer E. H. Wilson. For some reason the plant remained obscure until 1980 when the plant was reintroduced from China and promoted to the nursery trade by the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard. In a relatively short period of time the nursery community embraced the plant and it has now made it available to the public. While Heptacodium may still hard to find in the Midwest, it has become all the rage in the East and enthusiasm for the plant is spreading west. I have seen stunning mature plants in Massachusetts, Ohio and Minnesota but only in botanical gardens. The availability of Heptacodium will follow demand as more people are fortunate enough to see this plant in its prime and discover this little know treasure.

From a gardener’s perspective, this plant gets even better. It is a strong growing plant with few insect of disease problems. Its large, narrow heart-shaped leaves are a clean dark green without a blemish. While Heptacodium is easy to grow, the only word of caution, is that pruning is a necessary task in creating a neat full bodied plant, be it a shrub or a tree. This is especially true when the plant is young. Pruning should be done during the growing season to create more breaks. For mature plants in the landscape, pruning should be reserved for either late fall-early winter or in the early spring. The flower buds form in spring and slowly mature over the summer, so an untimely pruning would certainly sacrifice autumn bloom.

Gardeners will appreciate Heptacodium as easy to culture. It is adaptable to most any soil type especially once established. The best flower display will be obtained by planting in full both sun, but Heptacodium can also be effectively used in partial shade situations. This is a very versatile plant that can be grown and used as either a large shrub or as a small depending how you prune it and train it. As a small tree, it would make a excellent patio or specimen tree up near or around the house. Use it like you would use a crabapple or a hawthorn As a shrub is can be used as a specimen, or it can be massed on larger sites much like is done with Viburnum dentatum or Viburnum lantana.

If you've seen Heptacodium in its glory, then you know how good this plant can be, and that this plant has a great future. If you've never seen the plant than take my word - Heptacodium is a great plant!

'Firefly' adds a new dimension to Climbing Hydrangea

A few years back, I gave a Hydrangea talk at Swarthmore College and I told the audience that there were no cultivars of Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomela ssp. petiolaris). This is no longer the case for there are now four new cultivars available in North America. The most intriguing of these is a new variegated form called ‘Firefly’. Ironically this plant was discovered by Horticulturist Dan Benarcik just thirty miles from Swarthmore.

Firefly is quite typical for climbing hydrangea when it comes to flowers and form. It has a beautiful display of lacy white blooms in early summer, and like the species it is a great choice for training up a tall tree. It takes a few years for climbing hydrangea to establish itself and to start climbing, but once it does it can grow about two feet per year. It is well worth the wait for few things are as beautiful as a tall tree covered with climbing hydrangea, especially when in full bloom. What makes ‘Firefly’ special is its attractive lime-yellow leaf margin that gives the vine an additional season of interest. Its foliage display is at its best in spring when the buds break and the variegation is at its brightest. The vine literally glows at this time of year. As the season progresses the variegation becomes less pronounced and in the autumn, long after the flowers have faded ‘Firefly’ looks just like your standard climbing hydrangea.

As a plant hunter, one of my goals is to find new plants that have additional seasons of interest. This plant certainly fits the bill. Garden space is a precious commodity and personally I have limited room for plants that provide only a few weeks of bloom and nothing more. Plants should look good when they’re not in bloom and foliage is the attribute that I look to first to provide interest. The flowers should be the icing on the cake.

Diamond Frost Euphorbia

Normally I would dismiss an annual that has flowers as small as Diamond Frost, but growing this plant has made me a raving fan. I think you too will become a fan of this plant once you’ve grown it.

Diamond Frost is an easy to grow annual that performs in most any climate, and has was won awards across the country to prove it. It is a low billowing plant that reaches about 20 inches in height and width. The small white flowers are so abundant that the cumulative mass of flowers creates a beautiful show akin to Baby’s Breath. What is most remarkable is that this plant bloomed from the day I planted it until the day I had a heavy frost in my garden. It is a blooming machine. Its soft white flowers seem to compliment any plant in proximity, making it very versatile.

It is great planted in a large solid block or mixed with other annuals, perennials or shrubs. It is superb in mixed containers or hanging baskets. Space the plants about a foot apart and you will get a full display within weeks.

Diamond Frost is heat and drought tolerant, and requires no more care than planting and the occasional watering. There is no need to dead-head or to groom this gem.

Limelight - One in a Million

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ US plant patent #12,874

Without a doubt the best looking plant in my garden right now is Limelight Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’). When I first saw this plant in the Netherlands, my initial reaction was “Cool a hydrangea with soft green flowers, ... but wouldn’t pink be ever better. After getting the plant back to the U.S. and watching the plant grow, and watching people’s reaction to the plant (especially the response from women), I began to realize that this was one very special plant. After growing the plant for six years I’ve come to realize that this plant is was one in a million.

Light has it all! Not only is it drop dead gorgeous, it is also a performer. Gardeners from Orlando to Manitoba have sent me emails telling me how well this plant delivers. A landscaper from Chicago told me that he uses the plant in every design he creates. He told me that nearly all of his landscapes are in new neighborhoods with few trees. Bigleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) reblooming or not, cannot take the heat and sun. They simply collapse under these conditions. Limelight on the other hand thrives. It takes sun or shade, sand or clay soils. In the North or in the South it has proven itself to be a winner.

Besides its unique flowers and its superb adaptability, there are several other things that make this plant a proven winner. It has very strong stems that hold up its massive flowers even after a heavy rain. The old standard variety - Pee Gee Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’) deserves to be thrown on the compost heap because it is notorious for collapsing under its own weight. Also, if you watch Limelight closely you will notice just keeps sending up fresh new flowers. It blooms continuously from mid-summer until frost. This results in a unique autumn floral display - while the older flowers change from green to white to pink to burgundy, new green flowers are added to the color mix. In the autumn this wide range of flower colors is simply breathtaking.

Want to create something really incredible? A friend of mine has a 50 yard long hedge of Limelight running along side his driveway. People wizzing past his house at 55 mph literally slam on their breaks when they see it.

Limelight was developed by world renowned plantsman Pieter Zwijnenburg. Pieter and his wife Anja own a nursery in Boskoop, Netherlands. He grows over 2500 different varieties of trees and shrubs and has introduced over 50 different new plants in his young career. I had the pleasure of seeing Pieter receive the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s Gold Medal Award this spring in Chicago. It was a well deserved award because Pieter is a very special person and Limelight is a very special plant.

A Trip to Korea: Adventures of a Modern Day Plant Hunter

As we got closer to the Yellow Sea the greater my sense of concern. The rain was pelting against the windshield of the bus so hard the wipers seemed useless. A sick feeling was building in my stomach. What have I done? It was I who convinced Dale Deppe, the owner of Spring Meadow Nursery to go to Korea in search of plants. And now, the two of us were on bus heading to the coast straight into a Typhoon! No wonder we were the only passengers on the bus! At first, the Korean scenery had looked hopeful, even here, we saw plant nurseries and poly greenhouses scattered along the highway, but soon my spirits sank. The rain came down harder and although we still saw the occasional greenhouse, the structures now lay three feet deep in brown muddy water. Washed out roads, rice fields that looked like expansive lakes and a report that eight people had been washed away fueled my worries. This was my introduction to plant hunting in Asia. We had unknowingly came during typhoon season.

I'd heard plant hunters Berry Yinger and Dan Hinkley tell of their travels, filled with high adventure, adversity and the general tribulations of wild collecting in Asia, but my plant collecting practices are quite different. More like business trips than romantic adventures, I search out plant enthusiasts, plant breeders and growers in the hope of finding ornamental plants with commercial promise. My plant hunting philosophy is simple. The odds of finding a commercially interesting plant in Asia are much better in a nursery than out in the woods or on the side of a mountain. Local nurserymen and plant enthusiasts know the local flora better than I could ever dream to know in an 8 day visit. I had come to Korea to find new plants for the American nursery market, but as we traveled into our first typhoon, it was difficult to remember why we came, and if it had been such a good idea after all?

Our journey actually began a year earlier, back in my office in Michigan. I had been reading Dendroflora, a plant journal published by the Royal Boskoop Horticulture Society. I was pouring over the latest issue looking for clues that might lead me to a new plant or plant breeder. Although my Dutch is worse than poor, I was able understand an article on Hibiscus syriacus, more commonly know as Rose of Sharon. It’s a showy flowering shrub that has big colorful blooms in late summer, ant it’s hardy enough to grow out of doors in Northern climates. A small footnote in the article cited a collection Hibiscus syriacus at Mirim Botanical Garden in South Korea that cultivated over 150 different varieties. Unbelievable! Our nursery has perhaps the largest collection of Hibiscus syriacus in North America and we only have thirty six cultivars. This was the lead I had been looking for. A source for something new and exciting for the hungry American plant market. Few plants offer the blast of summer color that Hibiscus syriacus does, and not much has happened in this genus since the National Arboretum released it triploid, Greek Goddess series back in the mid eighties. Although these are beautiful plants, they are weak growing hybrids that lack sufficient hardiness. We were looking for something better.

Although my first love is horticulture, my position as Product Development Manager forces me to act as much like a detective as well as a plantsman. Years back, I read of an American expatriate, Carl Ferris Miller, who had stayed on in South Korea after World War II. He had fallen in love with Korea, given himself a new Korean name and had changed his citizenship, being only one of only two Americans ever to do so. Working as a stock broker in Seoul during the week and as an amateur botanist in the weekends, Miller, almost unknowingly, built a private arboretum about three hours south of Seoul in a small fishing village called Chollipo. Mr. Miller was our door into Korean Horticulture. Certainly he would lead us to meet the right plant people in Korea but I did not know his new name and had no idea how to locate him. My next big break came when I stumbled upon a web page published by an amateur Hibiscus enthusiast (http://members.tripod.cpm/~h_syriacus). I had found the most comprehensive listing of Hibiscus cultivar descriptions ever compiled. What a wonderful invention the internet is, providing the common man or woman the opportunity to freely publish to a worldwide audience on topics as obscure as Hibiscus syriacus! I downloaded addresses and telephone numbers for several Korean contacts, including Mr. Miller's Chollipo address. At last, I had the beginnings of a rough itinerary.

Driving closer to the coast, my doubts and misgivings increased. I had written to all of my intended contacts months before our departure, but only a few had written back. I had come to learn that Koreans don't use traditional street numbers for addresses. Supposedly street numbers are a Japanese invention, and anything Japanese is not to be accepted in Korea. The mail delivery relies primarily upon the quality of the mail carrier. When mail arrives in a village or neighborhood it’s up to the mailman and his memory to do the rest. Fortunately, I had received confirmation from Chollipo. Miller had instructed his staff there to assist us, for he would be in Outer Mongolia when we arrived. The assistance of the Chollipo staff was key if we were to effectively fill our two week itinerary and have any success finding plants. As our express bus stopped in village after village, I wondered if each one was our stop and how we would know with any certainty. Would the typhoon ruin all of our plans? What would become of the other typhoon that was building in the Pacific Ocean. I had been warned that August in Korea would be hot and humid, akin to summer in Houston, but no one had warned me about the typhoons. August is not the time to vacation in Korean between the typhoons, the heat and humidity, but we did not come to vacation. My contacts had specified that peak Hibiscus bloom would be the second week in August, so here we were, driving into a typhoon.

When we reached the end of the line, the bus driver signaled toward the exit and smiled. Pleased with his driving skills and recognizing the tension of the long drive he offered us cigarettes as we departed the Hyundai bus into the storm. I took the cigarette out of politeness, but it was soon too wet to light. The torrential rains had soaked it and us as we ran the six long feet to a small roadside tent that served as a bus depot. We had arrived in Mollipo, South Korea a summer tourist town without any tourists, only two wet Americans and a roadside tent / bus depot / convenience store. My instructions were to call the arboretum once we arrived, but the tent had no telephone. The shopkeeper pointed across the road to a phone booth, after I mimed a telephone call holding my empty hand up to my face.

Few people hunt plants in Korea. China and Japan are much more exotic, romantic and productive. Hunting in Europe has the distinct advantage in that we share a common alphabet, which greatly enhances travel, overall communication and your sense of security. We chose Korea for those same reasons most people don’t. Few others have been to Korea to look for plants so we faced less competition. Another unique feature favoring Korea is that Hibiscus syriacus is their national flower. Even though it’s native to Syria, the Koreans have adopted the flower as their own. In some manner, it has the symbolic significance of a unified Korea, North and South. We saw the significance of Hibiscus syriacus on several occasions during our trip. At a government research station we saw a field planted with of hundreds of Hibiscus laid out in the shape the Korean peninsula, with each state having a different flower color. We were guests at the “National Hibiscus Festival” in Children’s Park in Seoul where politicians and dignitaries lined up at the podium to give speeches. To a couple of western nurserymen this all looked very important as we sweated under the intense Korean sun with our silk Hibiscus flowers pinned to our lapels.

Within seconds of dashing from the bus depot / tent to the phone booth across the street, my umbrella was contorted and useless. It didn’t take to long to
 realize that using a pay phone was futile. Back in the tent, armed only with my drenched puppy dog look and more telephone-like gestures I had convinced a local man to make our call on his cell phone. He motioned for us to get in out of the rain and into his car. But instead of a phone call, the man, much to our surprise, revved up his car and zipped up a narrow washed out dirt road. Helpless and wet best describes our condition. Our continued attempts to have him use his Sansung cell phone were as futile our pay phone attempt. Trusting in the goodness of people was our only option at this point so we sat back and enjoyed the bumpy ride to who knows where.
Plant hunting trips are a crap shoot. You never know what you will find. You are certain to find something new or rare but to find a really good ornamental shrub is another story. Many of our customers’ clients are at war the big mass merchandisers. When fighting Goliath, you’re not going to win fighting it out on price, because you just don’t have the purchasing power of a big chain. Independent garden centers have successfully resorted to offering better service and better products. New and improved plant varieties are an essential weapon in their battle. That’s one of the reasons we look for new plants. But a plant has to be more than just new. People want color and easy care, and to get them to buy a plant, it needs lots of appeal. We’re not just hunting for plants, we’re hunting for commercially viable plants and that’s a lot more challenging. Often we come home with nothing, but that’s not to say the trip was a waste. It’s a slow process that takes commitment and patience. If we meet the right people and establish the right kind of relationship, they’ll remember us when or if they ever develop or discover a new plant.

Our immediate goal was the Chollipo Arboretum, so when our unnamed driver pulled into an apartment complex we felt somewhat confused. With the typhoon raging on and a storm of conversation between our driver and some of the apartment dwellers, we were taken aback when one of the tenants, speaking in perfect English greeted us and welcomed us to Chollipo Arboretum. No, we did not discover any new and exciting plants at Chollipo, but all was not lost. The typhoon soon headed north, the sun came out and we had two great days in the arboretum. We made good friends, ate freshly caught, barbequed eels and washed them down with xozu (a strong potato wine). The eel wasn’t too bad and the Korean people were great. That night the storm knocked out the electricity, and we had a candlelight dinner of fish stew in a nearby fishing village. When the lights came back on we played ping pong with some of the Arboretum’s college interns. Although they spoke no English, and I spoke even less Korean, the oohs and aahs uttered after a vigorous volley or a surprisingly good shot by the American said it well enough. The Chollipo staff helped us set promising appointments, told us which buses and trains take, and called our appointments in advance. The sun was shining again.

Eight days in Korea can be a long time when you’re away from home, your wife, kids and a western style bed. It seems even longer when you’re not used to the 98 degree temperatures and 99 percent humidity. When traveling the country side, we had a chance to experience the real Korea. Sure, one of our hotels had ocean water in the tap, but what difference does this make when there’s no shower or bath anyway. The beds were no more than a quilt and a linoleum floor, but in some ways it was as enjoyable as Seoul Hilton where we stayed during the later days of our trip. While most westerners will never experience the sights and smells of a Korean fishing village, I feel fortunate to have seen this part of Korea.

After the South Korean Secretary of Agriculture finished his “Hibiscus Festival” speech, Dr. Shim, a local horticulture professor who studied at the University of Illinois, quickly pulled me aside and told me that a television crew was going to ask me some questions. He dragged us over to a series of scientific display posters and motioned for us to stay put. I like to think of Dr. Shim as the Mike Dirr of Korea. Both of them love plants and both share their knowledge enthusiastically. Dr. Shim was basking in the media, telling his fellow citizens how he had hybridized a series of new Hibiscus. This was the one day of the year, he later told us, that the media was interested in Hibiscus. He was not wasting his opportunity. Suddenly, all the cameras were pointed at me! Dr. Shim whispered into my ear, “Tell the Korean people how much you love the new Hibiscus. Tell them your plans to introduce them in America.”
“Dr. Shim has created the most beautiful new Hibiscus,” I said proudly basking in my fifteen seconds of fame. “The American people will love them,” I proclaimed as the sweat rolled down by brow. Before the day was done, we were interviewed by yet another Korean TV station, but this time back at Dr. Shim’s research plots. “We love Dr. Shim’s new Hibiscus,” I shouted over the roar of F16 fighter jets playing war games overhead, “ … and the American people will too!”

We’re excited about these plants and believe they made the whole trip a great success, but only time will tell if the American people will love Dr. Shim’s new Hibiscus too. Plant hunting is like a crap shoot. Not all the plants you find will be winners. Our plants are locked in quarantine for two years. We’ll have to see how they perform and see if they have what it takes to be popular with the public. We also brought back other plants that have commercial promise, but these too will have to be tested and evaluated in our climate. Regardless, whether a single plant ever makes the grade and gets into a garden center, our trip to Korean was a success. We formed some great new friendships in Korea and these friendships hold a wealth of promise. We had met with a university professor who studied at the University of Illinois, an Arboretum director with a PhD from Michigan State, a government researcher who attended NC state and a friend at the Chollipo Arboretum with whom I had studied with at Longwood Gardens some 20 years ago.

Dr. Kyung-Ku Shim and myself 

I recently saw the evening news where they showed leaders of North and South Korea hugging in public. This event was even more surprising than finding myself on Korean TV. A new breed of Rose of Sharon, the symbol of one Korea, appears to have taken root. But as it is with new plants, its hard to tell this too successful in the long run. Dr. Shim is hopeful. He and others are breeding hardier strains of this beautiful plant. New plants that can endure the frigid winters of the North when it is reunited with the South. We too are hopeful for Hibiscus. It’s a beautiful plant that shines in the heat of the summer. Few plants deliver such color and have impulse appeal. Who can resist the beauty of this plant in full bloom? Sure, some plant snobs will turn up their nose at Rose of Sharon as too common, but fortunately most Americans aren’t plant snobs. So I’ll say it again, “…We love your Hibiscus Dr. Shim … the American people will too!”

Copyrights reserved 2000 Tim Wood

CITYLINE® Venice - Dwarf Hydrangea

CITYLINE® VENICE Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Venice Raven’ pp#10,928 )

Hydrangea Venice is a member of the Cityline® group of dwarf Hydrangeas developed in Germany by Franz-Xaver and Konrad Rampp of the Rampp Hydrangea nursery in Bavaria. While it is common in the U.S. floral market to use chemical dwarfing agents call Plant Growth Regulators (PGRs) on Hydrangea, their use in Europe is quite restricted. These restrictions were the motivation for the Rampp brothers to hybridize genetically dwarf cultivars of hydrangea. Venice is not just a dwarf hydrangea but a dwarf with large flowers. In late spring - early summer the blooms emerge a soft green with pink edges and as the blooms age the transform entirely to a rich pink. If you prefer blue flowers, this variety is easily changed to blue if you grow the plant on acid soils or if you add Aluminum sulfate to the soil in early spring (1T per gallon of water, repeated twice). The effect is quite unique because the large blooms cover the small plant creating a mass of color. This is a zone 5-6 plant that matures to about 2-3 feet tall. The blooms and stems are both thick and hold up to the heat of day and resist wilting while other hydrangea would be flopped over or wilting. While it is not a plant for most Midwestern gardens it is a superior selection that will perform well along both the East and West Coast and in the South.

Blue Shadow Fothergilla (Bottlebrush)

Gary Handy of Handy Nursery in Boring, OR recently discovered and introduced a new breathtaking blue-leafed form of Fothergilla. The new plant is a branch sport of Mike Dirr's strong growing selection Fothergilla major ‘Mount Airy.’ Like all Fothergilla it is adorned with honey-scented, bottlebrush flowers in early spring before as it leafs out. But what sets this outstanding plant apart from the rest is its colorful dusty blue leaves. In the autumn the blue foliage transforms to shades of rich red, orange and yellow.

Some of you may remember a plant call Fothergilla gardenii 'Blue' mist and if any of you have experience growing it you know that it was a gardeners challenge to keep it alive let alone get it to grow larger. The only thing Blue Shadow has in common with this mail order marvel is its blue leaves. Blue shadow is a strong growing plant that anyone can grow so long as you give the plant some decent soil and even moisture. The species F. major is a larger plant with larger leaves. It matures to about 3-4' as opposed to F. gardenii which tops out around 2-3'. Partial shade is perhaps the best growing location for all fothergilla, although it will tolerate full sun if give adequate moisture. It is hardy from zones 4-9 (Understanding plant zones )

What I like best about this plant is that it represents the transformation of a species with two seasons of interest into a plant with season long interest. In the spring you are rewarded with beautiful white, bottlebush-like flowers, and then the blue leaves emerge and darken as summer progresses and in fall the orange and red hues of the autumn foliage give the plant yet another dimension.

While still hard to find at retail garden centers, you can obtain Blue Shadow from Rare Find nursery and Wayside Gardens both offer this new beauty.

Golden Shadows® Pagoda Dogwood

Pagoda Dogwood, Cornus alternafolia, is a native understory plant that can be grown as a shrub or a small tree. Golden Shadows® (C. alternifolia 'Wstackman' pp#11,287) is an exciting new variety discovered by Walt Stackman, a daylily breeder from Illinois. It has brightly variegated leaves that are reminiscent of a variegated Hosta. To add icing on the cake, the new growth is tinged with hues of red and pink. Just like the species, this dogwood has white lacy blooms in mid to late spring. My plant was in full bloom on May 31 here in Michigan.

Previously to the release of Golden Shadows, the only other selection of variegated Pagoda Dogwood was a variety named 'Argentea'. While highly prized by collectors for its silver variegated leaves, 'Argenea' had the reputation as a plant that grew smaller each year instead of larger.

Golden Shadows is a robust plant and can be easily grown if planted in the proper location. Remember this is an understory species, so it adapted to growing in shady locations under larger trees. To get the most out of Golden Shadows plant it in a shady location, or better yet, in a location with filtered sun. With proper site selection you will be rewarded with strong growth and bright foliage.

This beauty has only been on the market for about two years, so I doubt that your local garden center sell it, however, it can be purchased via the internet or mail order from both Wayside Gardens and Songsparrow Farms. Google these nurseries to locate their websites.

If you enjoy this blog - please share it with a friend.

Black Lace Elder - Sambucus nigra 'Eva'

Black Lace™ (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’ pp# 15,575)

The appeal of Black Lace is its unique black leaf color that sets it apart from all other plants. Plants with black leaves are few and far between, especially for the perennial garden. In the array of shrubs it is nearly non-existent. Not only does it portray this characteristic, but many others. Its fine texture and lacy look is comparable to that of a Japanese Maple. For the novice gardener, it would be easy to get them confused. One way that it can be distinguished is the fact that Black Lace has beautiful pink blooms in early Spring & Summer. Then in the Fall it produces dark black berries that can be used for making wine and jam or for attracting wildlife. It is also multifunctional as a stand alone accent plant, mixed in a perennial and annual border, container gardening or as a hedge. It is exceptionally hardy and will do well from Central Minnesota to North Carolina and west to California (Zones 4 to 7).

For More New plants visit the ColorChoice Website

Abelia mosanensis (Fragrant Abelia)

Abelia mosanensis

This relatively rare Abelia is worth looking for if you enjoy fragrance in the garden.

It is a noteworthy because unlike any other Abelia it is highly fragrant, and very hardy - Zone 4.

I obtained this plant from a Latvian woman I met in Germany. I do not speak German or Russian, and she did not speak English but by pointing to some images and using botanical latin names I was able to show my interest in obtaining some plants. With the help of email, a translator and fedex I had this wonderful plant within six months.

Abelia mosensis as it turns out is actually a Korean native. It forms its flower buds in autumn and blooms in spring. The buds appear reddish-pink and the open to white. The fragrance is as good as Hyacinths or Korean Spice Viburnum. It is a most delightful plant to have in the garden.

The plant is a large, somewhat loose plant with glossy simple leaves that matures around 6ft. In the Autumn the foliage turns shades of orange and red.

We introduced this plant some 5 years ago and it is loved by all who have grown it.

For More Information on Cool New plants visit the ColorChoice Website